House of Commons
Wednesday 11 February 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Since the start of the conflict, the United Kingdom Government have allocated almost £3.5 million directly to non-governmental organisations and charities, with staff and resources on the ground, to provide immediate relief such as safe drinking water, emergency medical treatment, health and hygiene-related items, shelter and emotional support to civilians affected by the conflict. In addition, £4 million has been committed to the International Committee of the Red Cross and £1 million has been committed to the United Nations humanitarian emergency response fund, to which non-governmental organisations and charities can apply.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply; the news that our Government are responding positively in helping the agencies to rebuild the shattered lives of people in Gaza is certainly welcome. Many of my constituents have donated very generously to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. At a meeting last week, my constituents asked me what assurance we could give our aid agencies and NGOs that we will keep up the diplomatic pressure on Israel to make sure that there is free movement across the border crossings for the aid workers and the essential supplies that they are taking in.
My hon. Friend’s constituents in Chester share the concern widely felt across the United Kingdom that support should be provided to people who have suffered terribly in Gaza in recent weeks and months. I assure her and her constituents that we have been unstinting in our demand of the Israeli Government that there should be free and unfettered access not only for the aid, but for the humanitarian aid workers so that they can carry out their vital work.
Clearly, our overriding concern is to ensure that the humanitarian aid reaches those who need it; we would treat any diversion of aid extremely seriously. That is why we are already in dialogue with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the World Food Programme and other relevant agencies, which have long experience of working in the region, to ensure that all the aid provided through the generosity of the British public finds its way to those who so desperately need it.
Given what my right hon. Friend has just said, does he share my concern at the latest report from the United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator? He complains not only that the crossings into Gaza remain closed for far too much of the time, but that Israel is still refusing entry to lists of priority items for humanitarian aid supplied by the UN. What representations are we making to Israel on the issue of making sure that specific items get to where they are needed?
In recent days, our Prime Minister has written to Prime Minister Olmert reinforcing the consistent message from United Kingdom Government Ministers: that we want the free and unfettered access of which I spoke. I know of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest and commitment on these issues. Through his own expertise, he will be aware that the issue is not simply about the quantity of aid, but about the breadth of the kind of items allowed through the crossings at the moment. The UN estimates that at least 500 humanitarian aid trucks are needed daily for the pre-conflict requirements of the Gazan population and that, of the 4,000 types of relief item that it estimates are actually required, only 20 to 25 are getting in and out.
Israel has set up a clinic at the Erez crossing on the Gaza border to give free medical treatment to Palestinians. However, no one is in the clinics because Hamas turns people away at the border. Are the Government aware that those clinics have been set up by Israel, and what steps will they make to ensure that Hamas allows people to take that free medical treatment?
Of course we support any efforts made to ensure that those injured in the conflict receive the requisite treatment. There has also been provision whereby, for example, injured children have been taken across the Rafah crossing into Egypt. We have been clear; our policy has not changed in relation to all sides in the conflict—there should be free and unfettered access, so that humanitarian agencies of whatever origin can continue their work.
At the same time, we recognise that ultimately there needs to be a political resolution to the basis of the conflict. That is why we welcome the fact that there has been early engagement from the Obama Administration in the United States; they have made early phone calls to the region and appointed Senator George Mitchell. We also support the efforts led by the Egyptian Government, as part of the international community, to try to take forward a process that will ultimately lead to the basis of a broader peace settlement being found. Ultimately, that is the best guarantor of humanitarian support.
Recent reports by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and other organisations based in Gaza show that on a day-to-day basis only a fraction of the aid that is needed, including food, construction materials and fuel, is getting in. If the Israeli authorities are prepared to allow this to happen, despite the shortages, what role does my right hon. Friend see for the UN or other independent agencies in ensuring that the crossings are open?
My hon. Friend is right to recognise that there continue to be real difficulties in securing the required level of access. To give a sense to the House of the items that are currently being barred from entry to Gaza, they include school textbooks, PVC pipes for water and sanitation, plastic bags that the UN uses to distribute food aid, and equipment to store medical vaccines. That is why it is important that the whole international community is clear on the need for full and unfettered access. From a European Union point of view, there is, through the EU border assistance mission, a long-standing offer on the part of the EU to assist in creating the conditions in which a humanitarian corridor can effectively be established at the crossing, and that offer remains.
Everybody across the House and the country has been utterly appalled by what they have seen happening in Gaza in recent weeks. There will be a broad welcome for the Secretary of State’s commitments and pledges for aid and assistance, and for what I detect to be a harsher tone towards the Israeli Government than has been adopted in the past. Does he recognise that beyond the immediate priority of dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe in the aftermath of this horribly one-sided conflict, there must be a complete rethink of the way that the Quartet goes about development in the Palestinian territories? In particular, will he now accept that the Quartet’s deliberate political isolation of the people of Gaza in recent years has been ruinous and counter-productive?
I simply would not accept that characterisation of the Quartet’s position. Only last week, I had the opportunity to meet the Quartet’s envoy to the region, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and discussed with him the level of ambition that he has for the people in Gaza as surely as for those on the west bank. Last Thursday, I met Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestinian Authority, and he made it clear to me that the United Kingdom, as part of the Quartet, has been one of the key funders of the Palestinian Authority, because, as he rightly argues, if we ultimately need to see a broader peace settlement in the middle east, it will be necessary for there to be a viable negotiating partner for Israel. That is why we continue to support efforts on the west bank and why we continue to support the efforts of the Palestinian Authority. We recognise that while humanitarian access is vital, ultimately it will be insufficient until we see the broader political moves of which the hon. Gentleman speaks.
The nature of the crossing into Egypt is different in the sense that if one compares, for example, the capacity at Rafah with that at Karni, there are fundamental differences. The Egyptian Government have taken a leading role in some of the political discussions prior to the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire and subsequently following that ceasefire. We welcome those steps. At the same time, attempts have been made to ensure, notwithstanding the very real constraints on all the border crossings, that humanitarian aid continues to enter Gaza. We expect that in the coming weeks there will be conference in Cairo that will provide a further opportunity for those matters to be discussed.
It is clear from my recent visit to the Gaza border that the work of the Department for International Development is widely respected both by Israeli Minister Herzog and Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad. However, when I spoke to the UN agencies last night, they told me that still only a fraction of the 900,000 Gazans dependent on food aid were receiving it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is in daily contact with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is so vital to all the humanitarian relief efforts, and to which he has allocated £4 million in the past few weeks?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his gracious words in relation to the work of the Department and hope that they inform his other public comments on it in the months ahead. I can assure him that we are in regular contact with UNRWA. We have officials on the ground who are monitoring the situation, and as of yesterday morning, up to 200 humanitarian staff were on the list of people trying to enter Gaza. It is exactly that type of issue that we are discussing with the United Nations, as well as pressing the Israeli authorities on it.
We welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a total of £27 million of humanitarian support for Gaza and note that he has so far allocated just over half of that. Could he clarify for the House when, where and how he intends to spend the remaining half of that money?
That judgment will be based on the United Nations assessment, which has been carried out in recent days. Historically, there has been a difficulty whereby announcements have been made without allocations of funds following immediately. That is why on the very day that I announced the second tranche of British funds—the £20 million or so—I asked the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to visit the region. He met the Social Affairs Minister, Minister Herzog, who also met the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) in recent days, and we are in the process of distributing the aid through British-based NGOs and the United Nations organisations, including the World Food Programme and UNRWA.
My right hon. Friend was clear in his views on the scandalous refusal by the BBC to broadcast the appeal from the DEC. Now that the BBC has perhaps had time to reflect on the public anger that the refusal caused, and on the fact that there is still a clear need for that aid to get to Gaza, would my right hon. Friend urge the BBC to rethink its decision and to broadcast any appeal it wishes to promote on this matter?
I do not think that the BBC is in any doubt as to my position on the merits of broadcasting the DEC appeal. While having been clear from the outset that the decision ultimately has to be reached by broadcasters, the scale of suffering and the unimpeachable integrity of organisations such as the British Red Cross made a powerful case for the British people to be made aware of the mechanisms by which they could make a contribution to the alleviation of suffering. The reports I have received from the DEC indicate that it has received a significant level of support from the British people. I welcome that and continue to encourage people to make a contribution to alleviating such suffering.
Progress is being made on promoting legal crop growing in Afghanistan. The number of poppy-free provinces has increased from three in 2006 to 13 in 2007, and to 18 in 2008. Poppy cultivation fell in 2008 by 19 per cent. across Afghanistan, and the percentage of agricultural land devoted to poppy growing has fallen to just 2 per cent.
When I was in Helmand province last year, I was surprised to learn that the reason farmers grew poppy rather than other crops such as wheat was Taliban intimidation, rather than profitability—it is more profitable to grow wheat, particularly if free seed and input is provided. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be sufficient supplies of seed and input for farmers so that they can feel sufficiently secure to turn to more conventional crops?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the challenges faced in Helmand province in allowing farmers to make the transition from poppy growing to legal crop growing, such as wheat. That is why our comprehensive approach involves greater security and enforcement of the rule of law. It is a matter of improving infrastructure, developing rural enterprise with micro-credit schemes and, importantly for farmers, allowing the freedom of movement of crops.
Would my hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that there is co-ordination between his Department and the Ministry of Defence to provide the level of security to which he referred? Is he clear, as others may well not be, on the role of the UK in Afghanistan, and on any exit plans it has, in the light of some discussions this week that suggest that we could be there for years while making little progress?
My hon. Friend points out that there is an important role to play in co-ordinating military activity in Helmand with the reconstruction and economic regeneration that is so vital to the people of Afghanistan. That is why we have impressed upon Afghanistan the need to enforce the rule of law, which is done through our contacts with the MOD and military forces, and we have worked with Governor Mangal on the promotion of legal crop growing, such as the $11 million programme to invest in wheat seeds for 32,000 farmers in Helmand province.
Within the past few days, there have been reports of a rift developing between a senior American commander at NATO headquarters, who wants to go back to a more aggressive policy of eradication of poppy by force, and the senior American theatre commander who, rightly, wants to ensure that it is a matter of incentives not crude, counter-productive methods. Will the Minister and his colleagues do everything that they can to convey which side of the argument we are on to our American friends and allies?
I am not aware of the specific discussions that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but there is an $11 million programme to incentivise farmers to move from poppy to wheat growing. DFID has supported it with some $8 million, and the United States Agency for International Development, the development body of the US Government, has contributed the remaining $3 million.
As a result of our funding, the World Health Organisation has been able to set up a control centre in Zimbabwe to ensure a co-ordinated response to the cholera outbreak. We are in daily contact with our donor colleagues, relevant UN organisations and international financial institutions to ensure a co-ordinated response to the wider humanitarian crisis and to prepare the way for recovery when the time is right.
Bearing in mind that Morgan Tsvangirai has just been sworn in as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in what can only be described as a very imperfect deal, does the Minister believe that urgently needed humanitarian aid can be hastened? More than half the population rely on emergency food aid, and the cholera epidemic has already claimed about 3,500 lives.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We respect Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to assume the position of Prime Minister and take the Movement for Democratic Change into a power-sharing agreement. Equally, however, we will judge that agreement and the Government on their behaviour and conduct in the period ahead. Our job, currently and in the future, is to ensure that we get humanitarian aid to the people of Zimbabwe. We are providing £47 million for life-saving assistance, with £2 million more to come in the next few weeks. We have been leading the charge to ensure that we bring the cholera outbreak under control. We are having some success, but by no means has the cholera outbreak been resolved.
Does the Minister acknowledge that given the new situation in Zimbabwe, his Department will need to evaluate closely the opportunities that may arise to engage more fully in future? What steps will his Department take to co-ordinate with the neighbouring countries and to build a consolidated ability for local and international donors to ensure the rebuilding of the economy and the alleviation of poverty in Zimbabwe?
May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we are very clear about our view of the tests that should be applied to the conduct of the new power-sharing Government? Those tests must include the immediate release of political prisoners; an end to political violence and intimidation; the repeal of repressive legislation; crucially, the appointment of a credible financial team and the production of a credible economic plan; and a clear road map to the national elections, with guarantees that they will be conducted freely and fairly, in full view of the international community. Those are the tests that we will apply, and urge others to apply, to the new power-sharing arrangements.
Morgan Tsvangirai has taken a great gamble in joining in power sharing with Robert Mugabe. Do the Minister and the Government not consider that all neighbouring countries, Southern African Development Community countries including South Africa and international organisations should seek to give Mr. Tsvangirai and his party, the MDC, every support and encouragement to enable him to reduce the suffering of the Zimbabwean people?
Let us be clear: we want the new Prime Minister to succeed. We believe that we should support his courageous and brave action over a period of time to try to free Zimbabwe from tyranny. We believe that we should give him every possible support in his new role, but it is crucial that we judge the behaviour of the new Government by their actions and policies before we decide on the scale of the responses of the UK and other donors.
On the very day when Morgan Tsvangirai is being sworn in as Prime Minister of the new power-sharing Government, he faces a situation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) said, in which half the remaining population of Zimbabwe are facing malnutrition, there are at least 60,000 cases of cholera and there is a desperate need for medicines. What additional steps are the British Government taking with the Southern African Development Community to have discussions with the new power-sharing Government, and how long does the Minister believe it will take to evaluate whether there is any real improvement in the situation so that the devastation and humanitarian suffering in that great country can start to be reversed?
It is important to be clear about the help that we already provide and that is getting through: £9 million in food aid; £10 million to fight cholera; £10 million for livelihood support; £10 million for HIV prevention, as well as the support through the International Organisation for Migration for orphans and vulnerable children. In the weeks ahead, we envisage that the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international institutions will begin to engage in serious discussion with the new Government about the practical help that can be made available. We believe that that help should be made available only if that Government make credible economic reform proposals, which can be delivered in the interests of the people of Zimbabwe.
The UK does not have a bilateral aid programme with Sri Lanka. However, due to the unfolding humanitarian crisis resulting from the conflict in the north, we have committed £5 million to support agencies such as the Red Cross to deliver vital humanitarian aid. The Government regularly press the case for an end to the conflict and for allowing a full humanitarian needs assessment.
The severe restrictions on humanitarian agencies operating in the Vanni area means that it is difficult to get a clear picture of what is happening on the ground and how many people are affected by the conflict. That is why we have this week dispatched three departmental humanitarian experts to Sri Lanka to see for themselves the situation on the ground and to report back directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
The Minister has already said that the Government are applying pressure to try to relieve the position in the north of Sri Lanka. What pressure can they apply to stop the persecution of independent newspaper journalists in Colombo and journalists in the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation? Sri Lanka is meant to be a democratic country. What can we do to ensure that it remains so?
We impress on the Government of Sri Lanka the need to uphold humanitarian law in the country. We also agree with the EU Commission’s duty to initiate an investigation into the generalised system of preferences plus—GSP plus— trade preference scheme, which depends on Sri Lanka’s maintaining a good humanitarian record.
Has my hon. Friend seen the reports that health Ministers in Colombo have issued a final warning to the eight doctors and 1,000 medical staff in Mullaiththeevu and Ki’linochchi districts to leave the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam-controlled territories, and that defence Ministry officials were threatening them with
“dire consequences for helping supporters of terrorists”?
Will my hon. Friend do what he can to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government respect health facilities in the Tamil areas and fulfil their human rights obligations to the Tamil people?
We utterly condemn threats, violence and intimidation against humanitarian workers and aid agencies, and against civilian doctors and nurses who treat people. That forms part of the content of a letter that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the Sri Lankan President only yesterday, reinforcing the need to look after all civilians in Sri Lanka.
The UK has played a leading role in the development of the extractive industries transparency initiative and will work with key stakeholders at the global conference to advance it.
The initiative is a significant step forward in dealing with exploitation of oil and gas resources throughout the world. However, there is some resentment in developing countries and a feeling that the west is lecturing them about what should be done in their countries. Will the Government not only encourage such Governments to comply with the initiative, but sign up themselves and encourage Russia, India and the United States to do likewise?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The organisation has been operating for seven years, and 24 implementing countries, 40 extractive companies and 80 institutional investors have signed up. We want as many countries as possible to sign up to the principles and the objectives that underpin the EITI’s work.
Global Economic Downturn
We are reprioritising some of our aid to help mitigate the impact of the downturn on the world’s poorest. We are working with the international financial institutions, other world bodies and traditional donors, in particular in the run-up to the G20 London summit, on measures to help developing countries to maximise levels of economic growth.
We are working to ensure that the international financial institutions, in particular the World Bank, but also the regional development banks and the European Commission, continue to fund, for example, infrastructure programmes that sustain jobs, and to release more support for safety nets. We have also brought forward some additional resources to help, for example, to provide more safety nets in Ethiopia, to cover the higher costs of social protection there due to rising food prices and rising food shortages.
The Prime Minister was asked—
My constituents are fed up with irresponsibility from the bankers and the mistakes that are costing the country millions. Does my right hon. Friend accept that those allegations, including the most recent against Sir James Crosby, must be fully investigated to restore confidence in our banking sector?
It is right that we investigate serious allegations that are made about the banking system. These are serious but contested allegations; in relation to Sir James Crosby, these are allegations that he will wish to defend himself against, so it is right that he has stepped down as vice-chairman of the Financial Services Authority. It is important that the Financial Services Authority shows at this time that it is operating to the best standards possible. The Walker review that is being set up will look at exactly these matters—risk management, remuneration and the performance of boards—and I believe that the system of regulation in this country can and will be improved.
They can even plant questions at short notice. Let us be clear about what has happened. In the last half hour, Sir James Crosby, the man who ran HBOS and whom the Prime Minister singled out to regulate our banks and to advise our Government, has resigned over allegations that he sacked the whistleblower who knew that his bank was taking unacceptable risks. Does the Prime Minister accept that it was a serious error of judgment on his part to appoint him in the first place?
The allegations that were brought before the Select Committee on the Treasury were investigated by the independent KPMG in 2005. The allegations made by Mr. Moore were found not to be substantiated. That was an independent review, which was done by KPMG and reported to the Financial Services Authority. However, it is right that when serious allegations are made, they are properly investigated. No doubt the Treasury Committee will want to look at them; and no doubt the Conservative party will want to wait to see how that investigation takes place. The Walker committee will look at every aspect of banking regulation, which we know can be improved. The unfortunate thing is that every time we have called for more regulation, the Conservative party has called for less.
The Prime Minister talks about the KPMG investigation, but it was after that investigation that the bank virtually went bust. Taxpayers have poured billions of pounds into the bank. Not only was Sir James Crosby appointed as one of the top regulators in the country—and, I have to say, knighted by the Prime Minister for his services—but the Prime Minister has been relying on him for economic advice. Sir James Crosby was the man who was going to sort out the mortgage market, so will the Prime Minister confirm that, as well as standing down from the Financial Services Authority, Sir James Crosby is no longer one of his advisers? Is that the case?
Sir James Crosby did two reports: one for the Chancellor on mortgages, and one for me, when I was Chancellor, on security issues. He has completed these reports. He is no longer an economic adviser to the Government—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] And he has only been so in the context of doing two reports. If I may say so, we are facing very big issues in the economy at the moment, and the way in which the Conservative party wants to trivialise them does it no merit.
There is nothing trivial about asking the Prime Minister about the man he appointed to regulate the banks. Why cannot the Prime Minister just admit, for once, that he made an error of judgment? Is this not a big part of the Prime Minister’s problem? Sir James Crosby has had the decency to resign. Why cannot the Prime Minister have the decency to admit that he got something wrong? Is this not part of the problem? There has been no apology about boom and bust, and no apology about Britain being better prepared. Even the bankers have apologised—when is the Prime Minister going to? Won’t you just admit, one more time, that it was a misjudgment to appoint him to all those roles?
Yesterday, he heard the four leaders of the two major banks that were brought to the point of collapse apologising for what they have done. If we had not stepped in to save the banks, I would have had to apologise for not taking the action that was necessary, but we took the right action. I just want to ask him about the judgments that he took on all the big decisions over the last year. We nationalised Northern Rock a year ago, but the Conservatives opposed the measure. On the fiscal stimulus, when every other country in the world is acting, he opposed the measures that we took. On the whole range of measures that we are taking to deal with the fiscal stimulus that is necessary, including raising the pension and raising child benefit, they are opposing what we do. I think that he has to answer to the House himself for what he has got wrong.
I will tell him about the judgments that we have made. Voting against VAT—that was the right judgment. Supporting a national loan guarantee scheme—that was the right judgment. The Prime Minister says that the banks’ collapsing was nothing to do with him, but let us have a look at the judgments that he made when he was Chancellor. Who gave us the biggest budget deficit in the developed world? He did. Who left us the most personally indebted country in the world? He did. Who set up the regulatory system that has so failed? He did.
Let us have a look at another of the Prime Minister’s judgments. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have told us repeatedly that the economy will start to grow again at the beginning of July this year. The Schools Secretary, the man who was the Prime Minister’s chief economic adviser at the Treasury for so many years, says that we are heading for the worst recession in 100 years. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Schools Secretary?
Let us look at the judgments that he mentioned. On VAT, the Governor of the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have just said that it was the right decision to make. There is more money in people’s pockets as a result of it. It is only the Conservative party, which has always put up VAT, that believes that the answer can never be to reduce VAT. Let us look at what we have done for business. We have introduced a loan guarantee scheme that is £1 billion. We have introduced a Bank of England facility that will start on Friday that is £50 billion, and 56,000 companies have already benefited from the schemes that we have brought in. If we had taken the advice of the Conservative party, no money would have been used. As Barack Obama said only yesterday, doing nothing is not an option.
Let us have a little look at who backs the Prime Minister’s judgment on VAT. The Dutch say that it was
“not a very wise thing to do”.
The Germans—[Interruption.] These are his friends, by the way; I am not even talking about his enemies. The Germans say that the debt will take a generation to pay off, and the French President says that the Prime Minister is “ruining” the economy—[Interruption.]
The one pro-European that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention who supported the VAT change was the shadow shadow Chancellor, the shadow Business Secretary. I think it is remarkable—we really need to look at this—that at the point when we most need an injection of resources into the economy, the Conservative party is setting its face against ordinary families in this country who now have £20 more a month in their pockets. The people of this country will remember that the Conservatives opposed the VAT cuts; they opposed the rise in pensions; they opposed the rise in child benefit; they opposed the extra billions that we are spending on public investment; and they did so in circumstances where they knew that we have one of the lowest public debts of major countries in the world, not one of the highest.
The Prime Minister cannot get his facts right. The fact is that we have the biggest budget deficit of any country outside Egypt, Pakistan and Hungary—and two of them are already in the International Monetary Fund. Let us deal with a few more of the facts that the Prime Minister just gave us. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) voted against the VAT cut in this House. The Prime Minister never gets his facts right; he told us the other day that he was like Titian aged 90, but the fact is that Titian died at 86. For all we can see in the Government’s response to this recession, they have appointed the wrong people, they have made the wrong decisions, they cannot give us a straight answer about the mess we are in, and they never apologise for anything. Now everyone can see the price that is being paid, as thousands of businesses go bust and people are made unemployed up and down our country. Is it not clear that incompetence plus arrogance equals 2 million unemployed?
What did the Leader of the Opposition say to the Conservative party conference? He said:
“Everyone knows that business need deregulation… Who’s standing in the way? The great regulator… Gordon Brown.”
He went on to say that we had to deregulate the wealth creators. At this point, when the right hon. Gentleman is calling for more regulation, perhaps he would be honest enough to admit that he has been calling for the last few years for total deregulation of many of the businesses in this country. As far as judgment is concerned, let me just say that his judgment on Northern Rock was to let it collapse; his judgment on regulation is to deregulate as much as possible; and his judgment on the fiscal stimulus is doing nothing. The decisions that he has made on the global financial crisis have been wrong, wrong and wrong every single time.
The Prime Minister will be aware that it is almost 18 months since the Law Lords made a decision denying compensation to people suffering from pleural plaques as a result of negligent exposure to asbestos. Does he agree with me that we can restore justice and fairness only if that Law Lords’ decision is overturned?
I met my hon. Friend last week and we talked about this very issue. It is very important that we get a resolution following the court judgment on pleural plaques. The Secretary of State for Justice has been looking at this matter and talking to his colleagues right across Government about the implications of what can be done, and I can assure my hon. Friend that an announcement will be made very soon.
As I said a few minutes ago, more than 50,000 companies are benefiting from the measures that we have taken. Those measures include the new enterprise scheme; they include the working capital scheme that is being opened up in the next few days; and they include what we have done with the Inland Revenue and others to help people with the costs that they face at this time. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we are not only helping businesses in this country, but we are helping people when they become unemployed. In only the past few weeks, we have put in an extra £500 million to help them. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also see the help that we are giving people with their mortgages, which is designed to keep the problem of mortgage arrears and repossessions down.
Let us look at some of the Prime Minister’s big announcements. He said that he would get the banks lending again; they are not. He said that he would get tough on bankers’ bonuses, yet he is letting them keep millions in bonuses in return for a cynical apology. He said that he would create 100,000 new jobs, yet with unemployment today standing at almost 2 million and rising, our young people of today will be tomorrow’s jobless generation. It is bad enough to be a do-nothing party; is it not even worse to be a say-anything, do-nothing Prime Minister?
I have tried to explain in recent weeks that the problem with bank lending is actually the loss of foreign banking and non-banking capacity in this country. Half the lending in mortgages and half the lending to businesses came from that source. When that source leaves, as the Irish, American and other banks have left the country or have run down their capacity, the existing banks must do more.
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the banks in which we have an interest are lending more than they were. The problem is that we must build out of a gap in capacity that existed because of the loss of foreign lending. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that that is what is happening at the moment. We are trying to sign lending agreements with the banks.
As for the right hon. Gentleman’s other allegations, if I had taken his advice we would have made the wrong decisions.
It is right that there is outrage over the fact that the highly paid bankers who helped to create the current crisis are considering being paid huge bonuses, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the bank workers at the lowest end of the scale should not be penalised for their bosses’ failures?
Let me tell the House what we have done since October. I think that this must be made absolutely clear. First of all, on the boards of banks in which we have an interest no cash dividends are being paid, no cash bonuses are being paid and no share options are being paid. We have laid that down as a condition to each of the banks in which we have taken an interest. Meanwhile—I think that the House will want to know this—the four chairmen and chief executives of the two banks that we have taken over have all left, the board of HBOS no longer exists and seven people have left the board of the Royal Bank of Scotland in the past few days. Our determination is to make sure that the banking system is built on better fundamentals than in the past.
As for bonuses, while I am aware that there are thousands of poorly paid bank employees in this country who rely on their bonuses, we must ensure that we protect the public interest as we look through what is being proposed by the Royal Bank of Scotland and other banks. I assure my hon. Friend that we are determined not only to make our banks clean of the problems that have existed, but to ensure that they operate on good principles and that the rewards are only for good, sustainable, long-term benefits that accrue to the company and not for short-term deals.
It is right to say that for every person who is made unemployed there is sadness and sorrow, and we will do what we can to help people back to work as quickly as possible. It is right to say that employment has risen in my hon. Friend’s region over the past 10 years, but it is also right to say that the car makers and other industries are facing very big problems. Our determination is to give people help—help enabling them to stay in jobs where that is possible, help enabling them to get new jobs, and help enabling those who are already unemployed to get work as quickly as possible. When I met the members of the National Employment Panel this morning to discuss exactly these issues, many employers said that as a result of the 500,000 vacancies in the economy, they would be able to help people to get back into work.
On 1 January, we introduced the new scheme that will help people who are unemployed with their mortgages. That is now working; at 13 weeks, people will get help with their mortgages. We also negotiated with a number of building societies and banks that they will enforce a moratorium on those payments that it is necessary to make in situations where we can avoid repossessions. We are now bringing through the Banking Bill, which is in the House of Commons this week, and it contains the measures that will enable us to go further and provide a better insurance scheme for people who have problems with their mortgages. We have taken the action that is necessary, and we will continue to take whatever action is necessary. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting us, not criticising us.
The combination of the policy of the Mayor of London with those of the Conservative party to cut public spending now would mean that Londoners would be in a far worse position, if ever we had the misfortune of having a Conservative Government. It should be pointed out to the people of London, and to the people of the country, that if the Conservatives were in government, they would in a few weeks’ time be cutting local council funding plans, cutting police, cutting schools and cutting transport—they would be making cuts to vital services at a time when people need those services most. That is the Conservative party we know.
The position is, first, that the United Nations Secretary-General has asked for an inquiry into what happened, and particularly into what happened to the UN headquarters in Gaza, and, secondly, the Israeli Government have announced an inquiry into their actions. We must await the results of these inquiries.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have visited Birmingham, where people who have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan have been given help to recuperate and get back either into the armed forces or into work. Seeing the progress that people who have been severely injured have made is a very moving experience. I think the whole House will be proud of the 22-year-old Guardsman Scott Blaney, who has been standing guard at the Tower of London this week despite all the injuries that he has suffered. He is a shining example of the bravery, fortitude and determination of our armed services.
Will the Prime Minister consider providing Government help to enable medium-sized businesses to increase the pay to their workers on short-time working, as that might help stem the flow of redundancies of skilled, and possibly irreplaceable, staff?
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are things that can be done in this area. First, I ask him to look at the working capital scheme for medium-sized businesses, which will give them access to working capital—loan capital—over the period of the next year or two. I also remind him of the Inland Revenue scheme that allows a deferral of taxation, but we are also looking at how our training grant system can provide help for half a day or one day a week to allow workers to be kept on in industries that would otherwise be laying people off. In each area where we can take action, we will take action, and I will be very happy to look at any proposal that the hon. Gentleman puts forward.
Because of our ambitious carbon emissions targets—one for 2050 and one for the earlier period—we have a duty to invest, as well as the benefit from investing, in the low-carbon industries of this country. My hon. Friend is right to say that where we can gain advantage from investing in new environmental technologies that will benefit either the car or other vehicles, or businesses in general in our country, it is right to do so. We will shortly be publishing our proposals on how we can contribute to the development of a low-carbon economy for the future.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the means of dealing with that disease have been hotly debated over the years. I am happy to look at any proposals that he has for the future, but may I say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has regular discussions with the National Farmers Union on those very issues, and the investment that we have made in rural areas would be cut by the Conservative party?
Will my right hon. Friend commend the Tarmac cement plant in my constituency for its announcement of 60 new apprenticeships this year? Will he also commend the 100 businesses from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire that came together recently to hear about the Train to Gain project? Does he agree that investment in skills now—recession or no recession—is the key to prosperity in the future?
My hon. Friend may have noticed an advertisement from the CBI and other organisations saying that it is time to invest in the future—it is time to invest in the skills of the future. We are increasing apprenticeships this year, as a result of the decisions that we have made, by 35,000, so that there is not a cut in training during a period of downturn. We are also investing more in Train to Gain to enable people not only to continue in work, but to get the skills for the future. I must repeat to the House that if we had followed the advice of the Conservative party, we would be cutting these programmes when they are desperately needed now.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is a growing low-carbon environmental sector in this country that we need to support. It is worth about £100 billion and employs about 800,000 people, and we will do what we can to support it, even if the Conservative party seems to have a huge disinterest in the environment now.
The early-release scheme proposals were agreed by the House. We have said that we will look at them as we build new prison places. We are already building new prison places and, if I may say so, far from being soft on prisoners, there are now 20,000 more people in prison now than there were when we came to power.
I agree that we have to take very seriously the problem of lobbyists and what they are doing in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We will have to look at all the measures that could make the system work better. I am happy to look at my hon. Friend’s proposal and see what we can do.
Can the Prime Minister confirm that 150,000 work permits were issued to non-EU citizens last year—roughly four times the level under previous Governments, Labour as well as Conservative? How does that fit with his vision of reducing our unemployment rate?
We have just introduced a points system that means that unskilled workers will not get into the country—under the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman is talking about—unless they have a contribution to make. We are the first Government to do that, and it is the right thing to do. The hon. Gentleman will see the impact of the points system in the future. Despite all the figures that are bandied about, the percentage of non-UK nationals employed in the UK is 8 per cent., which is lower than in many of the countries with which people compare us.
Climate Change (Sectoral Targets)
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to set targets relating to energy generation and consumption; to make provision for the sectoral targets to be met; and for connected purposes.
The Bill focuses on the energy efficiency of residential accommodation; the level of energy use in the commercial and public services; the quantity of electricity generated from renewable sources; the amount of combined heat and power capacity; the number of dwellings with one or more microgeneration installations; and the level of carbon emissions from existing and new homes. It would set initial targets for those sectors, and would require the Secretary of State to specify further targets, especially if so advised by the Climate Change Committee or any other body established by Act of Parliament to advise the Government on climate change.
In addition, the Bill would require the Secretary of State to consult and seek agreement with organisations representing environmental interests, organisations representing business interests and, especially, organisations representing the energy efficiency industry, the renewables industry, the combined heat and power industry and the microgeneration industry. Within a year of deciding on his targets, the Secretary of State would have to publish, and then implement, a strategy for delivering them.
The central aim of the Bill is to help us meet our 80 per cent. CO2 reduction target and thereby play our part in limiting the increase in the average temperature of our planet in order to avert disaster. It is also about trying to ensure that the energy needs of our country can be satisfied in the future.
This Bill owes much to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen), who introduced a similar measure in the last Session and also sought to cover some of the same territory in a new clause that he proposed to the Climate Change Bill—now, of course, the Climate Change Act 2008. His expertise and dedication on the challenge of global warming are recognised across the House, and his new book—it is entitled “Too Little, Too Late” and it was launched last night—is now available.
It costs £7.
The Bill is about providing a way of meeting our CO2 reduction targets and protecting energy security by the establishment of a series of specific targets for energy saving and sustainable energy generation.
The 2003 energy White Paper described the energy that we do not need to use as the cheapest energy, and improving energy efficiency delivers just that. This is the low-hanging fruit on the climate change tree, but to date we have not harvested it anything like as well as we should have done—or, indeed, as well as some other countries have done.
The Bill sets an initial sectoral target for energy efficiency in residential accommodation of a 20 per cent. improvement on 2010 standards by 2020. The target for energy use in commercial and public services is a reduction of 10 per cent. on 2005 levels by 2010, and a further 10 per cent. by 2020. The target for combined heat and power is to have 10 GW of capacity installed by 2010. The target for microgeneration is that the number of dwellings with one or more microgeneration installations shall be eight times the figure pertaining in 2007. The Bill sets 2016 as the date when all existing homes shall be low carbon and all new homes zero carbon, and it also sets other targets with regard to building regulations.
The House may find the targets that I have just listed familiar; in fact, all of them are already stated Government objectives. What is new is that, if enacted, this legislation would make them binding, in the way that the targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008 are binding.
I believe that we now have to move from aspiration to delivery, and the best way to do that is through establishing clear requirements in law that can be revised as more information about the scale of the challenge becomes available and as new green technologies are developed and improved. One of the major benefits of passing this legislation would be to give the industries responsible for those technologies a firmer platform to build on and more certainty about future opportunities.
Good firms involved in the manufacture and installation of insulation and other energy efficiency measures, as well as companies in the microgeneration industry, combined heat and power and renewables, would all benefit from the underlying certainty provided by a combination of legally binding targets and policies. That would positively impact on their plans and investment decisions, and that in itself would take us forward.
The Stern report made the point that earlier action to limit the rise in temperature would be most effective and least expensive. Much of the climate change science since then has pointed in the direction of still greater urgency. According to any number of indicators—such as the rate of thinning of the Arctic ice, the impact of the loss of reflection of solar energy as snow and ice cover shrinks, the intensified drought conditions in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and, of course, eastern Australia, the melt-rate of the Greenland ice cap, the slowdown in the gulf stream, insect migration, extinction rates in vulnerable habitats and the degrading of carbon sinks—the evidence is growing that time is running out, and probably doing so faster than we thought even a few years ago.
We need to act, locally as well as globally, and this Bill could help. First, it would mean that the Government had to meet their targets in the sectors identified. They would have to plan to make sure that they achieved them, and that would lead directly to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, the Bill would also send out a message about our resolve to move away from the high-carbon economy. At present, there is a bit of a credibility gap between what the Government and Parliament say about the threat of global warming—that it is the greatest challenge that we face and that, if we do not tackle it, the consequences could be cataclysmic—and what is actually being done.
That perception problem exists in other nations and in our own population. Of course, this fairly modest Bill will not, on its own, turn that around, but it could help, because by enacting it, we would be saying, “We will not just try to improve energy efficiency, energy saving, and renewable and sustainable energy; we are committed to succeeding.”
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Challen, Mr. David Chaytor, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. David Heath, Dan Rogerson, Alan Simpson, Dr. Desmond Turner, Joan Walley, and Mr. Michael Meacher present the Bill.
Mr. Martin Caton accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 May and to be printed (Bill 61).
[5th Allotted Day]
Housing Waiting Lists
I beg to move,
That this House notes that social housing waiting lists have increased to a record 1.8 million families, over 4.5 million people, over the last 12 months; recognises that the Government’s policies have reduced levels of house-building across all tenures; cautions that the number of families waiting for social housing is rising to record figures; expresses serious concern that the number of children living in temporary accommodation has doubled in the last 10 years; warns that the Government’s changes to the system for counting rough sleepers will drastically under-estimate the problem; further notes that the Government’s top-down policies with regard to housing have strangled it with red tape; and is concerned about the implications of the Government’s housing policies for the future supply of housing in general and for families and the most vulnerable in society in particular.
Every Member of Parliament knows that sinking feeling they can have when someone comes into their surgery desperately needing help and assistance with housing. There is the vulnerable young man with no dependants and no priority on the housing waiting list; the woman fearful of an abusive partner, who is almost scared even to discuss her situation; or the couple who, with the recession biting, are struggling to pay their private rent and, incredibly, are advised that the only way to work the system is to make themselves “unintentionally” homeless by deliberately withholding payment from a landlord whom they like and trust. There are the endless letters from general practitioners, social services and us Members of Parliament, trying to plead exceptional cases. We MPs do what we can to help; we work the system, write those letters, and try to establish whether the process might have gone wrong, or whether an individual might be better represented in their case.
Every now and then, we have a small triumph, and get a letter from a delighted constituent saying that without our help, they would still be living in appalling, cramped conditions in unsuitable circumstances. Those letters may give us a little job satisfaction for a moment, but we always have the sneaking suspicion that although we did what we could to help in that case, there are still thousands of others suffering on the ever-growing housing waiting lists. It turns out that the figures fully justify our unease.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that there may be a connection between the scenario that he paints and the right to buy, coupled, most importantly, with the failure of successive Governments over the past 25 years to undertake a council house building programme, such as that which the two main parties rightly undertook—they can be proud of having done so—in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s?
The question is almost as broad as the subject of the debate. We can debate the policies that were in place when I was at school, or we can talk about the future. The most relevant period in history to discuss is probably the past 12 years, during which we have built just a tiny fraction of the amount of social housing previously built. I will come on to the figures in a short while, and I hope answer some of the other questions that the hon. Gentleman asked.
Today there is an all-time record of 1.8 million families languishing on housing waiting lists; that is getting on for twice the figure of 12 years ago. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, that equates to approximately 4.5 million people, each of whom has their own, sometimes desperate, story to tell. The situation is definitely dire, but it is important to understand how we got here. I do not believe that the Government are hell-bent on increasing social housing waiting lists or on making people homeless, but regrettably it is as a result of policies that they pursued that we have ended up in this situation.
At the Labour party conference in Blackpool back in 1994, the shadow Chancellor, now Prime Minister, told his audience:
“When people ask ‘what would a Labour government do today?’ Let us tell them…we will get Britain building homes again”.
Those are fine words, but how different the reality has been. Under the last Conservative Government an average of 171,000 homes were built each year across England. Under Labour, that average has fallen to 148,000—a drop of 23,000 homes a year. These are not just statistics. These are missing homes for real people. It is not just in the market housing area that the Government have a truly dismal record. Since 1997 there has been a persistent shortfall in the provision of affordable housing. In particular, there has been a failure to deliver sufficient housing for social rent.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I am not sure that he will like the point that I am about to make. Will he join me in criticising Conservative flagship Westminster council, which in the past two years has managed to achieve a proportion of affordable homes at only 11 per cent. of all the homes being built? Is it not the case that Conservative councils across the country, and indeed the hon. Gentleman in his capacity as a Member of Parliament, are blocking the building of affordable homes?
That intervention gets to the heart of the difference between the parties on housing. I will come to that later.
I know that the Minister has only recently taken on her portfolio, but she would do well to consider these figures. In the last recession, 60,000 affordable homes were built by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) when he was the Housing Minister. This year we will be lucky if 10,000 affordable houses are built. It is a question not so much of what proportion of the total are affordable as of how many homes are built in total. That is the main point that we have to understand. Eleven per cent. of a big figure means more than a larger percentage of a smaller figure.
Is it a corollary of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that he intends to increase direct Government subsidy in the building of homes? One of the issues, on which I have had a disagreement with those on my own side over the past 12 years, is exactly how we finance the building of new affordable and social homes. Is he saying that his party is now committed to increasing direct Government subsidy?
The hon. Lady knows a great deal about social affordable housing and she has hit on a vital point. It is obvious to anybody—we need not pretend otherwise—that we are not about to return to a situation where the section 106 building of all affordable housing will deliver. In the boom years when so many building applications were made, it did not deliver the required amount of affordable housing, so it will not deliver in the future. I will come on to the figures.
I understood the hon. Lady’s question to be about whether a change in the system is needed. Of course there must be a change in the system. I will come on to—[Interruption.] If hon. Members will let me make some headway, I will come to what I think needs to change. It is clear that what has happened up to now has been a complete and utter failure.
The figures speak for themselves. This is the part that I know Labour Members understand. Less new social rent housing has been built in every year under the Labour Government than in any year under the Thatcher and Major Administrations—less social housing every year.
I entirely agree that we are building too few houses for social rent. We have an enormous opportunity in the current circumstances, when many of the big five house builders are mothballing flats. In my constituency, for example, there is a development of 72 flats that have been half-built and are being sealed against the weather. They could be finished tomorrow if the finance was available. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that finance should be made available to bring that housing into social rent? If so, will he press on his hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor the need for a fiscal stimulus to do that?
The hon. Gentleman picks up on an important point. One of the extraordinary things about the Government’s programme—I am sure they will talk about this in the debate—is that they allotted £8.4 billion for affordable housing in the comprehensive spending review from April 2008 to 2011. If we ask how much of that has been spent, we discover that it is very little, because the issue is driven by market housing, and the market housing is not happening for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman just outlined—mothballing. Aligned with that issue is the number of empty homes—those that have been built but not sold and those that have been previously sold but are now empty. We hear today from the Empty Homes Agency that that number has hit what is probably an all-time record, with 1 million homes left empty. That is a scandal, too, and the Government could do far more to address it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s criticism of the Government and their failure to invest in building new council and social housing. One of the problems in my constituency is not so much the lack of new housing, although that is a problem, but the fact that so many existing council homes have had to be demolished because of a lack of investment in existing homes. That began with a 70 per cent. overall reduction in our capital expenditure during the Conservative years. He has to look at overall housing investment, not just at new builds. The problem with the current Government is that they continued for far too long—
I understand the intervention and the sense of frustration on the part of some Government Back Benchers. It is a fact that the number of social houses built for rent has halved over the past 12 years. Simply going back to a time when another party was in power—now 12 years ago—and claiming that all the problems can be traced back to somebody else is an argument that has long gone. We need to consider the situation over the past few years and to understand that if one builds only half the number of social houses available for rent, one de facto ends up with a big social housing waiting list. That is how we have ended up with 1.8 million people languishing on that list.
I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to go back to the situation before 1997, but does he not recognise that the fundamental problem that the Government have had since 1997 is dealing with the incredible backlog of disrepair in social rented stock that they inherited from the previous Government? There were 40-year-old bathrooms and kitchens, and windows that had condensation and leaked. Since 1997, the priority has been to repair them. The legacy of the previous Government under his party caused the concentration on that priority.
I am tempted to say that the current Administration always like to think that it is someone else’s fault. If it is not the fault of somebody else abroad, it is the fault of the Government who were in power all those years ago. It is true that houses need repair, but I should have thought that that was obvious when the Prime Minister made the 1994 Blackpool conference speech in which he stated that the money from housing sales would be put to use to build more homes. That policy option was available at the time, but what has happened since is that the money that was ring-fenced from right-to-buy sales has not been used to provide new council housing.
In fact, when we left office, 1,550 council houses were still being built each year, whereas last year the figure had fallen to 450—and that, by the way, was an all-time record. There has been a tremendous drop in the number of council houses being built, and there are choices that the Government could have made over any of the last 12 years to help provide more social affordable housing. They failed to make those decisions, which is why they now preside over a housing waiting list that has nearly doubled during their time in office.
The hon. Gentleman seems extraordinarily reluctant to recognise that the key issue is the number of homes that are in decent condition and available to let. The problem of the legacy inherited from the Conservative Government was that there was a £19 billion backlog of disrepair affecting millions of council houses. Will he now give credit to the Government for the action that has been taken to improve large numbers of those homes?
My No. 1 priority is the 1.8 million families—4.5 million people—who are now languishing on the Labour party’s waiting list trying to get a decent home. It is an absolute scandal. The last Conservative Government created 52,000 affordable homes a year, but the Labour Government have managed just 27,000 a year. The Government’s recession cannot be used as an excuse, either. As I said before, during 1992—a year of recession—the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, ensured that 60,000 affordable homes were built. Estimates suggest that that can be compared with 10,000 this year.
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young); I remember his time as Housing Minister with pleasure. However, we want to know to what the Conservative party would commit in terms of the number of new social housing units, the number of council properties and the amount of budgetary spend from a Conservative Government in year one. What is the answer?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s interest in our manifesto, but I am afraid that he will have to wait for our Green Paper on housing to fill in the details and to find out what the next Conservative Government will do.
I am left with the impression that although this Labour Government never admit to doing anything wrong, they recognise at least privately that they have failed on housing policy. That is presumably why on taking power the Prime Minister came out with his bold statement about having 3 million new homes by 2020—a headline-grabbing initiative. To punctuate his commitment to housing, he invited the Minister for Housing to attend Cabinet, declaring that housing was from now on his No. 1 priority.
Considering the high priority status of housing, it is remarkable that in 2008 alone I have faced three different Housing Ministers across this Dispatch Box. That is the level of the priority. Of course, it is not the fault of the Minister for Housing that she inherited the 3 million by 2020 target, which we now see was based on wishful thinking. I think that she was immediately wise enough to recognise the difference between what she called a target and a mere ambition.
The debate is not about party politics or political point scoring; it is about real people’s lives. Reports from the Conservative Homelessness Foundation reveal the real pressures that exist at the very bottom of the housing ladder—among people who are living on the pavements. All the years of failing to build have led to a severe lack of social housing, and even more to a dramatic loss of mobility in the existing social housing stock. As a result, those in temporary accommodation can expect to find themselves there much longer simply because so little move-on housing is available.
I am deeply alarmed by the Government’s failure to do anything about the Department for Communities and Local Government’s approach to bracketing down the rough sleeper estimates provided by local authorities. Rather than the accurate number of 1,000-plus people sleeping rough on the nation’s streets each night, the official figure is therefore just 483. Worse is still to come. The Government’s new rough sleeping strategy, “No One Left Out”, which was published in November 2008 by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), states:
“We will no longer ask local authorities that do not count to provide an annual estimate in their annual housing statistics return.”
It is important to understand what that means. At a stroke, simply by fiddling the figures, the Government will report the laughable figure of 214 people sleeping on the nation’s streets, compared with the more likely estimate of more than 1,000.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the work that Crisis, the homelessness charity, has done, which quite clearly shows that many more people are sleeping rough? The hidden homeless—people who are living in other people’s homes, in frankly second-world conditions—contribute to the problem. Does he agree with me and with David Coulthread from Crisis that we have to be more honest about the figures before we can have a more honest strategy to resolve the issues?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have some sympathy with the Government on this issue, and I have tried to work constructively with them. It is notoriously difficult to work out how many people are living rough because it is so difficult to count them. It is even harder to find out how many people are homeless, with definitions including living in hostels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and sofa surfing in other people’s houses. I completely understand that it is not an easy science, but it is incredibly disingenuous to fail to count correctly the number of people sleeping on the streets.
I have pointed out the problem to Ministers before, and it could be resolved—at least to a reasonable extent. The latest proposals are artificially to halve the numbers to 214, but anybody walking on the streets knows that more than 214 people in the nation are sleeping on the streets. It is just not good enough, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that severe problem.
If solving social mobility would ease some of the problems and 70 per cent. of social tenants want to own their own homes, one might think that the Government would have acted somehow. They have—under myriad complex, confusing and sometimes completely contradictory schemes, all branded under the “homebuy” label. The Government have a target of helping 120,000 households into home ownership between 2005 and 2010. How have they done? There have been 4,500 sales under their open market homebuy scheme and 18,500 under their new build homebuy programme; so far they have got to about 23,000 of their 120,000 target, which is not too good. Social homebuy, a scheme designed to have helped by now in excess of 10,000 households, has in fact assisted just 235 families.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked the Minister for Housing about the issue; she told me that social homebuy, which has helped just 235 families, was just a pilot. I know that she is just the latest incumbent to hold the fast-churn housing brief, but I have to tell her that she is wrong. The scheme may have been a pilot once, but it has not been for nearly a year, and by now we would have expected it to be having an impact. According to the Government’s own figures, about 5,000 homes should have been purchased in that time. In fact, since the scheme ceased to be a pilot, it has been dropped pretty quickly by housing associations and local authorities.
There is a better way. We will scrap Labour’s failed top-down targets and replace them with real incentives to create the kinds of communities where people really want to live. We will scrap regional planning, regional assemblies, regional spatial strategies and all the quangos directed to tell local people that the Government know what is best for them. We will replace it all with a system that works with, rather than against, local people, helping them to develop their own neighbourhoods.
Has the hon. Gentleman communicated that desire to abolish targets to Boris Johnson, who, as we know, is the most senior executive Conservative in the country? He has an affordable housing target and, interestingly, has also completely failed to carry the boroughs with him. Of the 32 boroughs that have been asked to respond to the Greater London authority’s housing target, 22 have simply failed to negotiate anything at all.
That is a matter for local authorities, local government and devolved government, where that exists. Local authorities decide on how to proceed with such matters. That is the whole point of handing power to people locally. The Mayor will decide what is best for his local area; that absolutely makes sense and is consistent with everything that I am saying about Whitehall and how it should not make such decisions.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s earlier emphasis on the need to increase the output of social and affordable housing, what would he do if he were in office and discovered that devolving those options to local authorities, the Mayor of London and others did not produce the results that he expected?
I would quite simply increase the incentives. The difference between our approach and Labour’s is that rather than thinking that the way to solve a housing crisis is to create ever-larger, top-down, Whitehall-driven, almost Soviet tractor-style targets for building homes in people’s communities, we can work with communities to create the housing that is needed.
People are perfectly rational: all we need to do is provide incentives and allow people to get something out of them. We should allow people to improve the development of their communities and get something in return for creating more housing. When my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire was Minister for Housing, that system built more homes; when we combine it with those additional incentives for local communities, even more homes will be delivered.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to descend into our policy papers, he is welcome to do so. As I said in my conference speech back in October, for example, an element of council tax should be kept locally when new homes are built. That would be an incentive for local authorities to build more homes and help to ensure that local people got something out of it.
Fine; with interventions, I am sure that we can. However, I am keen that others should be able to contribute.
There are systems of incentives that we can put in place, such as the one linked to council tax. Furthermore, the Government now say that 15,000 homes have to be built in my constituency, but extraordinarily they think that that can be done by closing down our local hospital and cutting accident and emergency, maternity, elderly care and paediatric services and all surgery and operations. They then think that the local population will go for their housing targets. That does not work; we have to work with communities, join up the services and give people something in return.
The Government’s record on housing is one of complete failure: top-down targets working against local communities, rocketing house prices followed by a crash, and the slamming in people’s faces of the door to home ownership. Housing is central to today’s financial crisis, and the collapse of our housing market is both a cause and consequence of the severity of Labour’s recession, but the people who will hurt the most are the people on the all-time-record social housing waiting lists, whom this tired old Government seem incapable of helping—or are too incompetent to help.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes that the Government is investing over £8 billion between 2008 and 2011 to increase the supply of social and affordable housing, has invested over £29 billion since 1997 to bring social housing up to a decent standard and has made £205 million available for a mortgage rescue scheme to support the most vulnerable home owners facing repossession so they can remain in their home; further notes that there has been a 74 per cent. reduction in rough sleeping since 1998, that the long term use of bed and breakfast accommodation as temporary accommodation for families provided under the homelessness legislation has ended and that since 2003 the number of people who have been accepted as owed a main duty under the homelessness legislation has reduced by 60 per cent.; further notes that the Government has helped more than 110,000 households into low cost home ownership since 2001; believes that the introduction of enhanced housing options services provides tailored housing advice reflecting a household’s individual circumstances while choice-based lettings schemes give social housing applicants greater choice over where they want to live; and further believes that the Government has taken measures to make best use of the social housing stock such as tackling overcrowding and under-occupation.”
One thing—perhaps the only thing—that no one in this debate is likely to dispute is that there is substantial unmet housing need in the country today. That need is visible in every sector, whether it be social housing, private sector rental or home ownership. The motion before the House first highlights the levels of house building, particularly for those in need of social housing.
As he does on every occasion, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) made a feature of the level of new build. His fundamental argument—on house building, social housing, temporary accommodation and rough sleeping—seems to be that the former Conservative Government had a housing record of which today’s Conservative party should be proud, and that it contrasts favourably with the record of this Government. I am not sure that that was altogether wise of him; there are one or two flaws in that argument.
What is unquestionably true—the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to it earlier—is that in the early 1980s, the then Government instigated a whole-scale sale of council properties. Understandably, that was a very popular policy. The first hole in the argument of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield appears when we recall that the properties sold were not replaced. In fact, repeated obstacles were put in the way of local authorities—many of them Conservative—that wished to replace lost stock so that they could continue to provide homes needed for social rent. From 1983 on, however much they built, there was a net reduction in local authority housing stock in every year of the life of that Conservative Government.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I want to emphasise the importance of her point. Are not Conservative councils such as the one in my area—and other ones, I am sure—renting back properties sold under the right to buy to house homeless households at a cost of about £400 a week to the taxpayer, when rent on the identical council flat next door costs £90 a week? Does that not expose the sheer insanity of a policy that sold but did not replace?
My hon. Friend makes her point clearly and powerfully, and I am glad that I gave way and allowed her to make it.
I shall anticipate anyone who wishes to point it out by saying that, since 1997, it has clearly been open to this Government to put additional resources not just into housing, but into council housing. We have done so. In partnership with housing associations, which were able to raise money from the private sector, we instituted a house building programme that built 25,300 homes for social rent last year; that was part of overall additions to the social rented stock of more than 29,300.
I am pleased to hear the Minister point out that the Conservatives began the policy of not allowing full receipts to be returned to councils after the right to buy. However, her own Government did not change that policy, and receipts from right to buy continue to go to the Treasury instead of being invested locally into new build.
I will return to that point a little later in my speech; if the hon. Lady wishes, I will give way to her again then.
That brings me to the second flaw in the hon. Gentleman’s argument: that it is somehow all our fault that we do not have enough social or low-cost housing. It is the case that not all the substantial resources—and they were substantial—made available for investment in housing went into new build. Why not? It is only right to remind the House that when we came to power in 1997, we found it necessary—I use the phrase beloved of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—to mend the roof while the sun was shining. In fact, we found ourselves mending roofs not just in housing but in schools, hospitals, and laboratories; roofs that had literal—not virtual or metaphorical, but literal—holes in them; roofs in every part of the public sector and in every part of the country. What is more, when it came to social housing, we were not just mending roofs but replacing doors, windows, floors, kitchens and bathrooms. We were picking up the tab—billions of pounds-worth of tab—for 18 years of neglect, decay and dereliction, so that council tenants might have not just a roof over their heads but a decent home. It has long been a source of complete astonishment to me that anybody on the Conservative Front Bench has the unmitigated gall to accuse us of not mending the roof when the sun was shining. The Government we replaced left a £19 billion backlog of desperately needed maintenance and repair right across the social housing sector.
Moreover, this utter betrayal of stewardship—this gross dereliction of duty of which the hon. Gentleman seems to be so proud—was committed by a Tory Government who had had the greatest windfall of any in the history of this country. I refer, of course, to the windfall bounty of North sea oil and gas, which in the years up to 1997 produced the equivalent of at least £35 million per day, every single day of the week, for a solid 17 years. I will repeat that, because I know that there is nothing that the Conservatives hate to hear more: the equivalent, in official figures, of £35 million a year, every day of the week, for 17 solid years. No Government in this country’s history have ever had a greater opportunity to invest in its future—whether it be in housing, in education or in infrastructure—and none have more disgracefully neglected their responsibilities. The Norwegians, who found themselves in a not dissimilar position, still benefit from a sovereign wealth fund. What we inherited were holes in the roads, holes in the roofs, and decay and dereliction in the very fabric of our country.
When we embarked on this huge programme of repair, we encountered yet another consequence of Conservative neglect—the effects of their recessions on the construction industry. Not only was there a dramatic drop in numbers—there was also a catastrophic deterioration in skills, with the departure of trained and skilled staff whom we could ill afford to lose. To this day, we can hear people in construction refer to the “lost generation” of building workers, who left the industry then and never returned. In the first quarter of 1990, there were 2.31 million people working in construction. By the last quarter of 1993, that had declined to 1.79 million, and it remained at similar levels throughout the 1990s. It was not until 2006—
It is no good the hon. Gentleman wittering on about that. He is the one who said that he wanted to dwell on the record of the previous Conservative Government, and I am going to talk about it.
It was not until 2006 that the number climbed back to over 2 million; and it may be no coincidence that that was when the numbers of new homes built began to return to the levels we need.
All this is, in part, why we have brought forward £550 million of investment from our forward programme to be spent over the next two years: not only to make sure that much needed affordable housing actually gets built but to support the construction industry while demand from the private sector is weak. Through real help now, we can keep people in work and businesses afloat, maintaining capacity in the industry so that it is ready and able to accelerate building again when the upturn comes.
Before the Minister gets overly confident with her remarks about skills and keeping the construction industry afloat, I draw her attention to the DCLG’s conclusion, which says:
“There is a significant risk that major Government targets for development and regeneration will be missed because our planning system is unable”
to deliver. Indeed, the Government have had that pointed out to them for several years. There is a skills shortage in the planning system and they are repeatedly refusing to address that problem.
We are taking steps to reform the planning system; we published a review only a few weeks ago. One of the major changes that has been made is the recent passage of the Planning Act 2008. I do not wish to mislead the House, but I think that I am right in saying that the Conservative party did not support large parts of the improvements that we made, including the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. I entirely accept that there are defects in the planning system, but we are beginning to address them. I certainly accept that there is a skills shortage; we are addressing that and encouraging local authorities to do so.
The Minister knows that I welcome her commitment to improving greatly the Labour party’s record in delivering affordable homes, and she is right to say that the construction industry has suffered terribly. Has she been able to make any progress in her discussions with the housing association sector to see whether it can spend the money that it wants to spend to do the work that it wants to do to bring people into jobs to build or finish the homes for which planning is agreed but which are not yet completed?
Through the Homes and Communities Agency, we are talking to housing associations, among others—people right across the board—about places where there are, as the hon. Gentleman says, projects in various stages of progress and what can be done to remove any obstacles to bring them to fruition. We recognise that if we are able to free up those sites, that in itself would be a contribution to keeping the industry at a higher level of operation than it otherwise would be and to bringing those homes into being.
The right hon. Lady implied that the Planning Act 2008, which introduces the community infrastructure levy, would help to increase the number of houses being built. Is she saying that housing is now becoming subject to infrastructure statements and will therefore be the responsibility of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, because otherwise there is no reference in the Act to speeding up housing planning?
No, I was not making that point, nor will the hon. Lady find, when she looks at the record, anything in my remarks that suggested that I was. I was merely drawing attention to the fact, a general point having been made about planning, that when it comes to improving our planning system the Conservative party has not always been supportive. I am not making any suggestion of the kind to which she refers.
The decent homes programme—a programme of repair and maintenance—is now coming close to completion. As progress has been made on making existing social rented properties fit to live in, so too the new build programme has increased and accelerated. We exceeded the spending review target of 75,000 new homes for social rent between 2005-06 and 2007-08; and in the present spending review period, the capital programme for new affordable housing increased by 50 per cent. to a record £8 billion-plus, £6.5 billion of which is for social housing.
I am certain that the Minister would want to join me in congratulating Cheltenham Borough Homes in my constituency on its early completion of the decent homes programme, which has been genuinely appreciated by many of my least well-off constituents. Does she agree, however, that it is regrettable that energy efficiency and renewable energy did not play a bigger part in that programme, and that that now offers an opportunity for more Government investment that might help to counter the recession in house building and related trades?
I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he casts his mind back, he will recognise that when the decent homes programme was first instituted, there was not the emphasis on energy efficiency that there is today. He will also find, if he looks at the recent homes survey, that there is a higher level of energy efficiency in social housing than in most other sectors of housing, but there is certainly more to do, and more will need to be done in this sector and right across the board. I do not want to enter an area of great controversy, but it is a source of astonishment to me that those who are concerned, quite rightly, about the impact of emissions and climate change say a great deal about the potential of another runway in various parts of the south-east, but currently about 30 per cent. of our carbon dioxide emissions come from domestic buildings. We hear very little about that.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that there has been substantial investment in the decent homes programme, but, great as that has been, it has still been inadequate, particularly for cities such as Birmingham, where the only prospect that the council has of meeting the decent homes standard is to embark on large-scale demolitions. We have lost about 1,300 houses a year for several years, and we have built only 850 new homes through section 106 expenditure and social housing grant. The council reckons that we need to build at least 4,000 new social homes a year. What prospect is there that we will reach that target soon?
I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely, but I will come to the issue of new build in this sector in a moment or two, if I may.
Our aim was to deliver 70,000 affordable homes, of which 45,000 would be for social rent in each year from 2010-11. However, I recognise the possible impact of the present downturn on those plans. We have already taken steps to address that and to keep the overall programme on track. Not only have we brought forward investment, as I have described, but we have been exploring new ways of securing new homes for social rent and affordable housing. For example, we have earmarked £200 million to spend on good quality, unsold homes from private developers. To date, about £160 million of that pot has been allocated, buying up almost 5,000 homes, including 3,400 for social rent.
More recently, we have supported local authorities who are interested in building new housing by utilising land that would not be developed by housing associations. We are currently consulting on a series of measures that would make it easier for local authorities to build new homes. Those include changing the revenue and capital rules that currently redistribute rent and capital receipts from new council housing. We are proposing that councils will be able to keep the full revenue and capital returns from new homes, which is itself a stronger incentive to build. Councils will also be able to bid for social housing grant from the Homes and Communities Agency for funds to subsidise building, and if there are other obstacles that prevent cost-effective schemes from getting off the ground, we will look at how to overcome them.
Will the right hon. Lady discuss with other Departments the fact that the Government have control over empty houses, particularly the Ministry of Defence? In my constituency, more than 200 family houses are standing empty—admittedly privatised by the previous Tory Government and sold to Annington Homes—and £3,500 is paid per dwelling, per year, out of the public purse for them to stand empty. Surely the Government should be banging heads together and ensuring that those houses can provide accommodation for people living in bed and breakfasts and inadequate housing.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue many times, but if he writes to me about it, I will be happy to look into it again. I wonder whether it is something to do with where those properties are, but I take his point about the impact.
The Minister has come to the point that I raised earlier. Why is she consulting only on giving receipts for rental income and the right to buy for new homes, and not tackling the rental income for existing stock? It would make a huge difference to councils’ ability to plan what they can borrow if they knew what money was coming in to pay back that loan.
As I hope the hon. Lady is aware, we are taking a fundamental look at how the housing revenue account operates. I expect to receive a report on that subject a little later this year. In the meantime, we were anxious to remove the active disincentives to new build.
Birmingham is relatively unusual in that it has retained council housing and 22 council houses were built last year. However, the council would like to build a lot more. What the Minister is saying implies that council housing is a second-best option to registered social landlords. Perhaps it should be seen as a positive option, particularly in the light of the credit crunch.
I do not recall saying anything that would lead anyone to that conclusion, but if anyone did draw such a conclusion, let me immediately refute it. When I referred to the investment made through housing associations, I was pointing out that public money made available through a joint project with those associations, matched by money from the private sector, goes a lot further. That was undoubtedly the reason for the emphasis on extra build in the first place. I certainly do not dispute that. It is why we have created an opportunity for local authorities to bid for social housing grant.
This is a key point, which the Prime Minister touched on in his recent speech. Until such time as the rules are changed and local authority borrowing does not score against public expenditure totals, local authorities will never be cost-effective when compared with housing associations. Are there any plans to change those rules?
As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will recall from his own years in power, that matter is under continual discussion. However, the position on housing associations is also changing, and I do not think that anyone can be confident about the balance that will emerge in the longer term. It has unquestionably been more cost-effective for some time in the past, and it has been the model for building in partnership with housing associations that have mostly raised revenues from the sale of their own properties, but have also been able to attract investment and bank lending. It is not quite clear the extent to which that will be the case in the future, which changes the balance on these matters.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that local authorities must not only build homes but develop a housing strategy that encompasses all initiatives so that they can make the best of them for their constituents? Would she be as surprised as I was to learn that Liberal-controlled Sheffield city council has bid for only £60,000—to buy two empty flats—out of the £200 million that the Government have made available, compared with the £2 million that Labour-controlled Barnsley council has obtained?
Yes, I am extremely surprised to learn that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and other Sheffield politicians will do everything that they can to encourage a more robust approach.
I would like to touch briefly on some of the other issues raised by the Opposition motion. While we were repairing existing homes, and building more, strides were also taken to try to tackle the number of formerly homeless people living in temporary accommodation, and to reduce the number of rough sleepers. The numbers living in temporary accommodation were themselves, in part, a reflection of the inherited neglect of housing from those Conservative years. It is no use the hon. Gentleman pretending that levels of homelessness and rough sleeping were not a well-known social scandal during his party’s years in office.
In fact, despite the hon. Gentleman’s denunciation of all targets as Soviet-style, it was this Government, not his, who made an attempt to set a target to halve by 2010 the numbers of households in temporary accommodation, in comparison with 2004. I realise that that had other effects, which are causing unforeseen difficulties in other areas, but I hope that no one will contest that we did need, and do need, to tackle the issue. This Government have already overseen dramatic falls of 74 per cent. in the number of rough sleepers and we have committed ourselves to ending rough sleeping by 2012. I note that the Opposition motion fails entirely to give any recognition to what has been achieved, but merely expresses the pious hope that there will be problems with the system of counting the number of rough sleepers in future.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), deals with the issue of rough sleepers and has a good deal of specialist knowledge about it, and he will mention it in his winding-up speech. I know that he will cover the matters that the hon. Gentleman raised.
The Opposition’s motion ends by expressing concern about the implications of the Government’s housing policies for the future supply of housing, especially to the most vulnerable people. However, there are two notable omissions from its text. Extraordinarily, it fails even to mention the implications of the recent downturn, which are obviously grave, and it gives no indication of Conservative policy, which I therefore assume remains to do nothing to tackle the problem. That would certainly be consistent with the approach of the previous Conservative Government. I understand that they made resources available only by buying up stock, including some houses that had already been repossessed, to prevent it from dragging the market down.
In contrast, we are doing everything we can to help households avoid the trauma and upheaval of repossession. We have secured an agreement from lenders that repossession should always be a last resort, and they have agreed to wait a minimum of three months before seeking to repossess. We have also expanded and introduced schemes to help households in particular circumstances and to support advice services, including by providing additional court desks.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not. I have almost concluded, and I gave way to him earlier.
We have advanced and expanded assistance for those who have lost employment, and we have introduced a mortgage rescue scheme intended to help vulnerable groups who would be eligible for support from their local council under homelessness legislation if their homes were repossessed, meaning that they would automatically be eligible for social housing. That could include the elderly, disabled people and those with children. The scheme will help eligible families to stay in their homes as part-owners or tenants, with the support of a housing association.
I am grateful to the Minister, who has been very generous in giving way in this important debate. May I ask her, on behalf of many of my constituents who are council tenants, to say a little more about the comprehensive review of the housing revenue account, and particularly about negative subsidy? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] This year, council tenants in my constituency anticipate having to pay more than £10 million to the Government in their rent. They also know that the Treasury will be a net beneficiary to the tune of £200 million from the balance of subsidy receipts and payments in the coming year. They want to know, at the very least, whether during the review that the Government are still conducting, they will accept that there should be no further changes to the amount of subsidy that councils are given or to the negative subsidy that tenants are asked to pay. Will the Government consider that? At the moment, my tenants are feeling rather hard-pressed—
Order. That intervention is verging on a speech.
I will have to study the record, and I am not quite sure about the hon. Gentleman’s final point. I can certainly assure him that we are fundamentally examining all aspects of the housing revenue account. I cannot yet say what the balance of the decision will be.
The hon. Gentleman’s party has made less noise than some others about the Exchequer’s surplus in the account, and I heard a lot of “Hear, hear” from the Opposition Benches when he mentioned it. Much has been said about that, as if it were a completely new phenomenon. The records go back only as far as 1994, but they show that the housing revenue account was in surplus under the Conservative Government and did not go into deficit until we instituted the decent homes repair programme, which I have mentioned. Such a surplus is not a new phenomenon at all. I accept that colleagues will have differing views about whether it is desirable for the housing revenue account to be in surplus, but there is nothing new about it. I am sure that Opposition Members will draw that to the attention of all the tenants’ groups to which their local authorities are making representations on the matter.
I can assure hon. Members that we are continuing work with lenders on a further scheme to help those who face potential repossession or suffer a sudden drop in household income, who were mentioned earlier, and we hope to bring it forward in the not-too-distant future.
I note that despite the concerns raised in the motion, it makes no mention of what is presumably supposed to be the Conservatives’ better offer if, as they hope, they win the next election. I know that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield mentioned that in his final remarks, although I am not entirely sure whether he left the House much clearer about it. Perhaps the motion does not mention it because the Leader of the Opposition’s budget proposals indicate that the budget for my Department would not be allowed to grow by more than 1 per cent. a year. In other words, if the hon. Gentleman were to become Housing Minister, he could expect to preside over a budget cut of, at best, about £800 million, or a potential cut of 10,000 new homes for social rent.
I welcome the concern for the most vulnerable people expressed in the motion, but a debate on housing should definitely be the occasion for more than a few home truths. The plain truth is that neither the Conservatives’ record in office nor their proposals for the future, insofar as they are clear, match up in any way to their rhetoric on what I agree is a vital issue for our country. That is yet another example of why it would not be safe in their hands.
When I saw today’s motion, I could not quite believe my eyes. The Conservatives knocking the Government for failing to tackle the social housing waiting list is a little like Jonathan Ross complaining about the lack of moral fibre in the BBC, or perhaps Jeremy Clarkson fronting a new campaign for Scottish pride. It is simply not credible. I wonder what we will see next from the Conservatives. Perhaps the next Opposition day will bring a motion condemning the sinking of the Belgrano, talking up the benefits of free milk for every child or expressing posthumous solidarity with the 1984 miners’ strike.
I have to admire the brazen, bare-faced cheek of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). However, he delivered his speech without any obvious sense of irony, which demonstrates either a breathtaking absence of self-awareness or a degree of self-delusion that puts to shame even the best of narcissism in this great place.
I think that it was Disraeli who described the Conservative party as “an organised hypocrisy”. Was not today’s speech by the Conservative spokesman a perfect example of the fact that hypocrisy is still alive and well in the Conservative party?
Something like that—I am not sure whether I would dare to use such a term, as it might be deemed unparliamentary, but I agree entirely with the sentiment.
The Minister said that the Conservative motion entirely lacked policy proposals. The only one that I could find in it was to cut red tape, which seems to be the Conservatives’ sticking-plaster option for all their policy gaps at the moment. But it takes bricks, concrete and builders to build houses—solid, expensive and tangible things. The Conservatives’ approach to house building is a little like one of those Etch-a-Sketch toys I had when I was a child. Everything is in outline, but the drawing dissipates as soon as anyone shakes it. The Conservatives are the party that invented the right to buy and prevented councils from reinvesting the full receipts in new homes, that slashed the Housing Corporation’s budget and whose legacy was a catalogue of disrepair.
Since 1980, about 2.5 million council properties have been purchased under the right to buy from a council stock that then stood at more than 5 million. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield tried to make a point about the replacement of those houses, but I am afraid that the successive policies of both Conservative and Labour Governments have prevented councils from reinvesting the money from the right-to-buy scheme locally. That is why we have seen such a shortfall in social housing. Worse, the Conservative party would impose the same policy on housing associations—an idea that experts in the sector have universally condemned. Housing associations already face financial difficulty because of the climate of lending and the extent of their debt. However, the Conservatives want to remove their rental income and dwindle their asset base. The Conservatives are right about the problem—the Government have failed to tackle the housing waiting list—but they have offered us no solution today.
There is no solution for my constituent Mr. Ahmed, a single man approaching his 60s. He is disabled, unable to work and struggling to care for himself now that his children have moved away. By any measure, he is profoundly vulnerable, yet he has been on the housing waiting list since 1984. After four Prime Ministers—two from each main party—people such as Mr. Ahmed have little or no chance of finding a home.
In my constituency, if we continue building at the same rate but lose properties through the right to buy, it will take more than 200 years to house the 20,000 families who are waiting for new homes—and that assumes that no families are added to the list.
On that point, and the impact of the right to buy and a possible extension of the policy to housing associations, does the hon. Lady have the same experience as I do? In my constituency, approximately half the properties sold on several estates are now in the hands of property companies and multiple landlords. The argument that the right to buy automatically translates into home ownership for individuals and does not influence the total stock of affordable housing is therefore wrong.
I agree. There are elements of our constituencies that are very similar. However, I also know from colleagues in the south-west that some properties sold under the right to buy are now second homes for people who live in London and come down to holiday in them during the summer. The hon. Lady is right to say that the right to buy has not meant that those properties are left for people in the community.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an alternative—a way to allow the occupant to get possession, while retaining the local authority’s right to take the property back when the possession ends? The most progressive authorities in the country—South Shropshire comes to mind—have done that. It means that the properties stay with the community for local residents to take up tenancies after the initial occupation.
My hon. Friend is right. Last week, we debated proposals for community land trusts, which Liberal Democrat Members have championed for some time. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is saying that the Government championed it, too, and the Conservatives are joining in—
I am not going to get into that sort of competition, but I am pleased that there is all-party agreement on the matter. However, it does not detract from the point that the right to buy, without giving the money to local authorities to invest, has caused much damage and created housing need in local communities.
One in 10 of my constituents lives in temporary accommodation. That is typical of many areas in London—the figure is even higher in some parts of the city. Most of them are in a poverty trap, with high rents and housing benefit meaning that they cannot afford to work. I have many constituents whose parents were in temporary accommodation when they were born, and they experienced all the regular moves and disruption to school work that that entails. Some of them are now having families of their own, still in temporary accommodation. A whole generation has been condemned to uncertainty and poverty. The misery and helplessness of those waiting for housing eats away at their existence. The Government’s failure to tackle the problem is a betrayal of the people who elected them.
I am trying to follow the hon. Lady’s argument because, a minute ago, in reply to the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), she mentioned her concern about the right to buy, yet the Liberal Democrat amendment would in many ways strengthen the policy by allowing local authorities to keep receipts. Is it the Liberal Democrat position that right to buy is good or bad?
I am amazed that the hon. Lady cannot grasp the point. I must have made it about four times in the debate, including in interventions on Labour and Conservative Front Benchers. Councils should be allowed to keep receipts from the right to buy and invest them locally. However, we do not want the policy to be extended to housing associations because it would disrupt their asset base. For those that are charitable organisations, it is even against their charter. I thought I had made that point clearly.
Does the hon. Lady agree that far too few new buildings for council or housing association rent have been developed in the past 10 years or more? One problem is that, in local authority planning, the threshold is too high, so that most small developments, which are the norm in central and inner London, simply have no social element. For several years in my borough, less than 5 per cent. of all new buildings were for social rent.
I am prepared to say that the right to buy has been an unmitigated disaster. I will not go into detail, but if we are to encourage councils to build more homes—I sincerely hope that we will—how will we prevent their asset base from being destroyed if the right to buy continues unabated?
Sometimes it depends on the subsidy offered under the right to buy. There are many variations to ensure that, especially in areas where there is a lack of stock, it is not degraded further. However, I accept the hon. Lady’s point.
The most important thing that the Government could do for families in my constituency and in constituencies across the country is to tackle the policy problems that prevent councils from building new homes. They should give councils back the receipts from the right to buy, as I have said many times—perhaps I had better say it again to ensure that Conservative Front Benchers understand me—and they should give them certainty about their rental income so that they can plan. [Interruption.]
Maintaining social homes in Brent and many other parts of London costs more than can be raised through Brent’s council tenant rents. [Interruption.] There is so much hilarity that I shall repeat my point. When it comes to subsidy and housing revenue account, in places such as Brent and other constituencies in inner London it costs more to maintain those homes than can be raised by Brent’s social tenants. Why should the responsibility for paying for the shortfall lie with council tenants in Cambridge, Chesterfield or Solihull? Why have the Government imposed an additional tax on council tenants—individuals and families who already live on low incomes? Any subsidy should come from general taxation, paid for by people on a higher income, not the poorest people in council housing. The system of pooling council tenants’ rent nationally amounts to a tax on tenants.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Is the housing revenue account not made even worse by the Treasury’s retaining some of the funds, so that the poorest people not only pay for improvements in other areas but pay a tax directly to the Treasury?
I agree. The point was made earlier to the Minister, who tried to say that the problem was not new. Yes, it is an old problem, and it is time that the Government fixed it. I know they are consulting about it, and they say that they will conduct a review. Unfortunately, their current proposals suggest, as usual, that they have taken the title but not written the prose. I want the Government to reform the housing revenue account radically and introduce proposals as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about the negative subsidy. It is a big disincentive to local authorities to maintain council housing and a big incentive to opt out or have stock transfer. In the long term, it will lead to poorer standards of council housing unless it is reversed.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It means that councils have no certainty about their income, thus making it impossible, when they are also losing receipts from the right to buy and do not know what their rental income will be from one year to the next, to plan.
The plight of families waiting for housing will get worse with the recession. However, the ability of housing associations and councils to match the problem is getting weaker under existing policy. Housing associations say that building has ground to a halt as they are hampered by banks renegotiating existing loans and raising the stakes on new ones. Worse, they can no longer cross-subsidise developments through private sales and shared equity homes. As I said to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), councils that relied on section 106 agreements to get social housing built find that everything stops as private development stops.
We must accept that, in the short term, a higher subsidy is required in many areas to keep homes being built. The Homes and Communities Agency has said that it is willing to be flexible. However, that needs to filter through to housing associations urgently. I think it will require the intervention of the Minister to ensure that that happens.
We must keep building. If we stop building in this recession, when banks start lending again there will be a real danger of hyper-inflation in the housing market—need does not go away because people cannot get mortgages, and people do not stop needing social housing because there is not enough available. If we stop building, we will lose the construction workers who build the homes that we need, and if we lose their skills it may take a generation to replace them.
But the recession is also an opportunity. Land is cheaper. Homes are cheaper. However, the Government have invested just £200 million in the national clearing house scheme to allow housing associations to buy up unsold property. The Government say that they want to build to create jobs, yet they have brought forward just £400 million to build 5,000 new homes. That will barely dent the list of need in this country.
Instead of spending money on a VAT cut that made little or no difference to most families in this country, the Government could have spent the money providing insulation for 1 million people languishing in fuel poverty and building 40,000 new zero-carbon homes. If the Government really wanted to offer a VAT cut, how much more useful would a cut in the rate for renovation and rebuilding be? Today the Empty Homes Agency has said that it expects the number of empty properties in this country to reach 1 million for the first time. If we really want to tackle both the social housing waiting list and the blight of derelict properties in our communities, such a cut would be a tangible change that would make it cheaper to bring those homes back into use.
Finally, I want the Government to go further in trying to prevent the recession from increasing the number of people who find themselves requiring emergency social housing. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has estimated that 75,000 families will face repossession this year. We have seen a raft of announcements that provide solutions for small numbers of families who meet specific criteria, but the announcement that held out the most promise for the most people—the pre-action protocol—is the announcement that suffers most from a lack of teeth. The Government urgently need to update mortgage law to drag it into the 21st century and give courts the powers to intervene if they see fit. I urge the Government to legislate and not to leave the problem until it is too late.
Housing need is a serious and urgent issue—an issue that causes devastation for millions in this country, traps whole families in poverty, ruins life chances and extinguishes hope. In the face of this depth of need, we have seen from the Conservatives a motion that is so shallow and narrow in its solutions as to be insulting to my constituents who desperately want help. The Conservative party needs to start taking the issue seriously and come up with a proper policy. That is the job of the Opposition, and the Conservatives are failing in their duty.
This debate started very interestingly, when the official Opposition tried to institute collective memory loss about what happened before 1997. Those of us who lived through that period as local councillors—I was chair of housing in Sheffield in 1980, when some of the problems began—have a slightly different recollection of how the problems that this Government inherited started.
In Sheffield we were building around 1,000 council houses a year; people could walk into the housing department and get a flat almost on demand; and it took two to three years on the waiting list to get a family home. We had an ongoing building programme and a significant programme of modernising and upgrading our existing housing stock. In the next few years of the early 1980s, our housing investment programme was cut from more than £100 million to less than a third of that amount. That is why we got into the problems that we faced in 1997: not only did we stop building houses because there was no money, but we largely stopped modernising, leaving the backlog of disrepair to be picked up by the decent homes programme.
I remember delegates from the association of municipal authorities, as we were then, going to see various Environment Secretaries in the Conservative Government. I particularly remember one meeting with the late Nicholas Ridley, at which we got cups of tea but no sympathy whatever. It was not just Labour councillors who were outraged, as we clearly were, at the end of the meeting; the Conservative councillors who had gone to report their problems had to be told, “Well, simply stick up your rents to pay out of your revenue for long-term capital problems.” That was the only answer—it was not an answer, of course—to the massive backlog of disrepair that had been identified and which steadily got worse.
That was the reality of the situation, and that was why we were in the position that we were in in 1997, when the Government understandably had to concentrate in the first instance on the problems of disrepair and repair the 40-year-old kitchen units, the 40-year-old bathroom suites—it was hard to call them that in most cases—and the windows that leaked water, as well as the roofs and walls that were not fit for purpose. That was absolutely right. Indeed, one thing that the Government can be proud of is their investment in the existing housing stock and the fact that thousands—indeed, millions—of people’s lives have been made better as a result of that programme.
At the same time, we had the right to buy, although it was interesting that the Opposition spokesperson referred to commitments made by the Prime Minister previously to spend capital receipts on building new homes. Funnily enough, that is exactly the same promise that local authorities were given in 1980, when the right to buy was introduced. One Conservative Minister after another said, “Don’t worry—sell your homes off to sitting tenants, and the money that you get from those sales can be reinvested by councils in building new houses.”
Of course, what happened was that the amount of money that was allowed to be spent was 25 per cent. of the capital receipts gained, which had to go into making up the shortfall in the repairs and modernisation programmes that had been cut by the Government. That is the situation that we were in. Virtually not a single penny ever went back into building new homes as we had been promised. That was a broken promise that created long-term damage and difficulties.
Since the 1990s house prices have increased, which has meant that houses have become less and less affordable to people on low incomes who want to buy. We have experienced enormous pressure from the increasing numbers of people who want to rent homes. In Sheffield, we had 90,000-odd council houses back in 1980, but that number, including stock transfer, has gone down to just over half. If we have only half the houses that we had and if we have not been building over a long interim period, there will be pressures on the waiting list. That makes it rather difficult to understand why, when the Lib Dems were in power in Sheffield at the end of the 1990s, they knocked down several hundred family homes in the city. To put things into a historical perspective, that was a most enormous mistake for which they ought to be held accountable, so I have to smile a little when I hear their comments today.
The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) was right: this issue is about personal tragedies. When people come to my surgery with their housing problems, they all have very good reasons why they should be the top priority—they are sleeping either at friends’ or parents’ houses; their families have split up; their homes are massively overcrowded; or they are living in poor private rented accommodation. In 2007, the figure in my constituency for allocations of three-bedroom family houses off the waiting list in Sheffield was 12. That is the problem. The shortage is of family homes in particular, rather than flats. If we are looking to build more homes in the future, I hope that we will concentrate on family homes.
The problem is not just the number of houses we build but how we allocate them. I am waiting for the Government’s response to the Hills report about our allocations policy and other management issues, because by changing the policy we could make better use of our housing stock. In particular, I understand that when pressure is put on the waiting list, and when there is a shortage, there will always be more and more priority cases. However, that means that people who have been on the waiting list for many years—a constituent has written to me to say that he has been on it for 10 years and wants a move—are denied their right to a move, because there is always someone with a higher priority. My constituent says that around 90 per cent. of the homes that he now sees through choice-based lettings advertised by Sheffield Homes go to priority cases, whether those cases have arisen because of the demolition of properties or whether they involve homeless families or other people with a particular need.
The Hills report identified one particular issue, by pointing out that in many cases people need to move within social housing in order to access work or be nearer families who can offer them child support so that they can access work. Those are important issues. Sometimes when a house becomes vacant, it should not necessarily go to the person at the top of the priority list. It might be that another tenant can move into that property and thereby release their home, so that in the end we have better allocations and better use of properties. That issue is something in the Hills report that I hope the Government will respond to positively and give guidance to local authorities about.